Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called Israel’s existence an “insult to all humanity”, in one of his sharpest attacks yet on the Jewish state.
As Israel openly debates whether to attack Iran over its nuclear programme, Mr Ahmadinejad launched the stinging rebuke, saying confronting Israel is an effort to “protect the dignity of all human beings”.
“The existence of the Zionist regime is an insult to all humanity,” Mr Ahmadinejad said, in a speech to mark Quds (Jerusalem) Day, an anti-Israeli demonstration in solidarity with Palestinians.
Mr Ahmadinejad said that Israel is a “cancerous tumour” that will soon be finished off.
His address to worshippers at Tehran University was broadcast live on state television as part of nationwide government-organised protests.
Quds Day has been an annual event during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Iran ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
State television said millions of Iranians joined the marches across the country this year. Some demonstrators carried a coffin with pictures of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders.
Iranian protesters also shouted “Death to America, death to Israel” and burned American and Israeli flags in the rallies.
In his speech, Mr Ahmadinejad called for Muslim unity to foil Western support for Israel.
“You want a new Middle East? We do too, but in the new Middle East … there will be no trace of the American presence and the Zionists,” he said.
Mr Ahmadinejad called Israel “a corrupt, anti-human organised minority group standing up to all divine values”.
“Today, confronting the existence of the fabricated Zionist regime is in fact protecting the rights and dignity of all human beings,” he said, with a black and white scarf, which many Palestinians wear, around his neck.
Israel, thought to be the Middle East’s only nuclear-armed power, sees Iran’s nuclear activities as a threat to its existence and has repeatedly threatened military action if diplomacy fails to resolve the issue.
Mr Ahmadinejad, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other Iranian leaders have made repeated calls for Israel’s destruction.
Iran has denied allegations that it is seeking to build nuclear weapons, saying its nuclear programme is peaceful and aimed at producing electricity and radioisotopes used to treat cancer patients.
Iran has warned it would hit back at Israel if it is attacked, also threatening to strike at American interests in the region.
In Washington, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor strongly condemned the Iranian leader’s comments.
“If Iranian officials are truly concerned about protecting the rights and dignity of all human beings, then Iran should stop supporting Assad’s brutal assault on the Syrian people,” he said.
“Iran and Syria’s blatant disregard for basic human rights is the real insult to humanity.”
A spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement that Mr Ban also condemned the comments and said leaders in the region should use their voices to “lower, rather than to escalate, tensions”.
Israel and Iran have been bitter enemies for decades, but tensions have intensified since 2005 when Mr Ahmadinejad said that Israel will one day be “wiped off the map”.